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[ 1888 - 1973 ]
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THE EARLY YEARS
Harold Griffith Oliver was born in Hastings, Minnesota, April 4, 1888, to Mary Simmons (born in Minnesota) and Frederick William Oliver (born in England). Raised in a Tom Sawyer environment, he associated with trappers, timbermen, and steamboat men, and became an expert canoesman, guide, and muskrat hunter while a very young man.
His father ran a general store in pioneer conditions.
Harry's formal education was scanty. He said, "I attended public school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin until the fourth grade, that's when dad put me to work in a small town print shop in hopes that I would learn to spell." He said he was the world's first grammar school dropout, because that was the only way I could rebel against people who think there is only one way to spell a word. After working as a bill-poster for the Ringling Brothers circus, Harry moved with his family to Puget Sound, Washington in 1909.
He worked as a scenic painter for the first Seattle World's Fair (Panama-Alaska-Yukon Exposition) where he met famous hat-maker John B. Stetson, who gave Harry his trademark black Stetson hat.
Harry's parents soon settled down on a chicken ranch in Santa Cruz, California in 1909 where Harry worked as a burro-driver for the U.S. Forest Service. He designed and built the set for Ben Hur with Francis X. Bushman in Italy. Mary Pickford was delighted with his work and hired him to do dozens of films for her and her actor-husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Oliver won two Academy Awards as an art director, working on some of the classic pictures of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1910 Harry returned to Minnesota to wed Alice Elizabeth Fernlund, "a pretty little Minnesota bear trapper," who later bore him two daughters, Amy Fern and Mary Alice. Harry and Alice returned to the chicken ranch in Santa Cruz.
Harry worked odd jobs, including scenic artist with small theatres. "One day a movie company came to town with an opening, and I got the job." Harry worked on various Hollywood productions from around 1911 to 1941, rising from set painter to set dresser to art director.
Designing and building structures occupied portions of both the professional and personal life of Harry Oliver. Harry built a number of adobe houses for himself and his family, both because he liked the esthetic effect, and because the building materials were extremely inexpensive. The first of these was La Ballona Rancho (named after nearby Ballona Creek), built beginning in 1917 near the old Palms film studios. In 1980 it was still standing at the corner of National and Exposition Blvd. in Los Angeles. Homesteading at Borrego Springs, Harry built his Rancho Borego house from 1930 – "a real first class, old time Spanish residence" and "surely a credit to the valley" according to the local newspaper. It was still standing in 2002, "not far from the Pegleg Monument. But I will warn you right now, the current owner does not take to trespassers, and does not want anybody poking around the old place. Seriously."
Borego was almost always spelled with just one "r" by the old timers, even though the proper, Spanish spelling has two. It was not until Borrego Springs came along after the war that the correct spelling was made official.
Moving to San Juan Capistrano in the late 1930s, where he managed a general store-trading post after retiring from Hollywood, he may have built another adobe house for himself, but documentation on this is sparse. And when he finally moved to Thousand Palms, California he built his famous Old Fort Oliver, "as old as the hills, 'cause that's where I got the adobe." Harry always said he built Fort Oliver to protect Desert Hot Springs from the east.
Besides his work on film sets, Harry's known professional designs date from the 1920s onward. The elaborate gingerbread Willat-Spadena Witch House (1921), "perhaps the ultimate example of Storybook Style", with no two windows or angles alike, was originally built on the set of the Irvin Willat Film Studio in Culver City, then moved to Beverly Hills in 1934 and converted to a private residence. Another of Harry's designs was the original Van de Kamp Bakery windmill, the corporate symbol of that firm. It was built at the Willat Studio film lot around 1921, then moved about 200 feet south of Beverly Drive on Western Blvd. The design was reproduced in the widely-spread bakery cottages around Southern California. Very few of these now survive. Members of the Lawry's Foods and Van de Kamp Bakery families decided to build a restaurant at the corner of Boyce and Las Feliz in Hollywood. They commissioned a design from Harry, who constructed the Storybook Style building aided by movie studio carpenters. This Tam O'Shanter Inn opened in June 1922 and was a great success. The owner said, "Every piece of wood which was used in this structure was thrown into fire first with the result that we never had to paint it and it got more beautiful as the years went by." (L.L. Frank to B. Stohler) It was since remodeled and renamed the Great Scot.
In 1935, Harry was engaged to design, direct and produce Gold Gulch, the largest concession at the San Diego World's Fair (California Pacific International Exposition). Gold Gulch was a 21-acre old west mining camp and ghost town replica which undoubtedly inspired the Knotts Berry Farm Ghost Town, which Harry was consulted upon but was not formally involved with.
In 1946-1947, Harry designed and supervised the construction of the Arabian Nights Stage at the National Date Festival fairgrounds in Indio, California. Gaudy productions were staged in this faux-Baghdad fantasyland from 1948 on.
Of his family, Harry said, "My sister Amy Silver died giving birth to twins. My other sister Francis was a bright little brown-eyed newspaper woman in the good old days (circa World War I). My older brother Fred was a Western Auto sales buyer for years."
In 1910 Harry traveled from California to Minnesota to wed Alice Elizabeth Fernlund (1896?-1935) who bore him two daughters, Amy Fern and Mary Alice.
When Harry homesteaded in the desert in 1929 he spent much time there, as well as at remote locations for his movie work. This removal from his Los Angeles home put great strains on the marriage, which seems to have ended around 1929. vHarry moved back to the Palms house after the death of Alice Oliver from tuberculosis at age 39 on January 9, 1935, and raised his two daughters with a succession of housekeepers. He soon met Ruth Dayton while engaged in his San Diego World's Fair project. "She amused Harry from the start — riding backward on a burro down the narrow winding road into 'Gold Gulch'." Ruth and Harry were married in San Diego on July 27, 1935; she was 29, he was 47. "However Harry soon learned Ruth was a bit too fond of booze . . . resulting in a short stormy marriage."
In 1936-1937 Harry decided he needed to spend more time with his daughters. He pulled them out of school and together they traveled all over California, visiting all the missions, the construction site of the Golden Gate Bridge, numerous Gold Rush locales, "and Harry kept his daughters busy writing history theses on everything they saw." By 1941 the daughters were grown and married with children of their own, and Harry left Tinseltown for good, relocating to Thousand Palms, California where he built Old Fort Oliver. His daughters' families spent a great deal of time at the Fort; some descendants, like granddaughter Betty Jo, told of happily "growing up" there.
DESERT RAT YEARS I
Harry seems to have started adopting his Desert Rat persona in 1916, when he was introduced to life in California's Borrego Valley (which he insisted on spelling Borego), and with the informal formation of the Pegleg Smith Liar's Club, made up of Los Angeles desert enthusiasts and Anza-Borrego area homesteaders.
Most of the Borrego folks he later writes about didn't come to Valley until the mid-1920s, not long before he arrived. In general, the dates in Harry's life seem to drift quite a bit — usually backwards. Maybe because of too many people relying on his Desert Rat Scrapbook for facts.
The Borego Valley Growers, "an organization of motion picture people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills who plan to develop a section of land in Borego," consisted of Harry Oliver, president; Oscar J. Brodin of United Artists, and Fred Sersen and Walfred Pallman of Fox. Each had 160 acres, sharing a common well, put down in 1930. That same year, the partners bought another 140 acres adjoining their ranches. Later Paul Widlicska of United Artists joined in, taking up land northwest of Section 24.
Since these folks were all working in Hollywood, most of them, including Harry, only came down to their ranches from time to time, usually in the winters. The rest of the year, they had ranch managers looking after their interests. Harry's brother-in-law, John Fernlund, was the first to look after Harry's place, known as the H.O. Ranch. Lelah Porter, who homesteaded in Borrego in 1927, recalled that Fernlund "played harmonica, guitar and drums for dances."
Harry gave the Valley its first street names back in 1929, and erected rustic, painted signboards at many of the intersections. None of his "picturesque and historical names" survive.
In the fall of 1930 Harry began construction on an adobe ranch house on his place, "a real first class, old time Spanish residence" and "surely a credit to the valley" according to the local newspaper correspondent. Lloyd Cannon, another Fox employee, supervised the work. Presumably Harry did the designing. It was completed that December, and the Fernlunds moved in.
Harry held on to the place until at least 1936. At that time, his father-in-law, George Allen, was living on the place. Some of the land was planted to alfalfa, but the Borego Valley Growers never launched any major agricultural efforts. Oscar Brodin was the only one who held onto his ranch. He came back to the Valley in 1948, and reportedly bought Harry's old quarter section. He died in 1960 at the age of 83.
Will Rogers was not too far wrong when he wrote in 1935 that Harry "has a place away out on the desert." The Borrego Valley was about the most isolated part of San Diego County in the 1930s, with no paved roads, no outside electricity, and no telephones. There was a little homesteader community there of about 300 people at the start of the decade, but the population dwindled as the Depression wore on. The modern community of Borrego Springs there was not founded until 1946.
He gained media attention by carving and weathering dozens of wooden peglegs which he scattered around area hillsides and gullies, so that rockhounds and tourists might think themselves on the track of the fabulous Lost Pegleg Mine. The Riverside Enterprise newspaper wrote, "Defending himself, Oliver says the Government stocks trout streams for fisherman, why shouldn't I stock the desert with peglegs?" Walt Disney says Harry coined the word "litterbug." Harry was the original Desert Rat, and was also called the desert's Don Quixote.
Harry's last big contribution to Borrego was the Pegleg Smith Liars Contest, officially launched in 1948. Harry visited the Valley in October of 1960, when an official California State Historical Landmark plaque was dedicated in honor of Pegleg Smith. "I have a lump in my throat so big it will take at least two bourbons to wash it down," Harry told the crowd that day.
After Borrego, Harry ran a trading post in San Juan Capistrano, not far from the old Spanish mission, a phase of Harry's life strangely missing from most biographies. Perhaps it was just too far from the desert. It was only in the 1940s that Harry moved to Thousand Palms.
Harry, as the storyteller, sets himself up as the keeper of the mythical Busy Bee Emporium in Borego. He does make a few genuine references to Valley history, such as Anza coming through in 1774, and everybody working on the Truckhaven road past 17 Palms to the highway [1929-30]. He does mention "Old Doc Beatty" [sic - Beaty] in Rough Cuts, and later in the DRS. Doc was the king of the homesteaders in Borego, arriving in 1912 soon after the first settlers came into the Valley, and living there until his death in 1949.
It was during his Borrego days that Harry's career as a desert humorist really got under way. Inspired by the characters and liars of Borrego, Harry wrote six stories of local color stories for Life Magazine (the 1883-1936 humor journal, not the Henry Luce photojournalism magazine). He got $300 for them, his first big sale. "Two months later it folded up," he said. He later collected and expanded on these stories for his own publications (Desert Rough Cuts, 99 Days In The Desert, The Old Mirage Salesman, and Desert Rat Scrap Book). Desert Rough Cuts. A Haywire History of the Borego Desert, was published in 1938 [not 1937] by the Ward Ritchie Press of Los Angeles, and copies today are both fragile, and expensive.
His desert stories also appeared in magazines such as The Gold Miner, Todo, The Grizzly Bear, New Mexico, Desert Magazine, Stage, and others. He later wrote columns for Desert Magazine, Arizona Highways, and daily for a group of California and Arizona newspapers. "But my writing wasn't in demand until I became my own publisher," he said.
In June, 1932, the Borego Valley correspondent of the Ramona Sentinel, Lloyd Kelsey (who pops up ocassionally in Harry's later writings), noted: "Harry Oliver, well known motion picture director and land owner of Borego, is writing a series of stories appearing in Life magazine. Borego valley is prominently mentioned in the stories which are of more than usual interest. `Hay Wire Johnny,' 'Borego Valley Scott' and 'Eliminating Lem' are characters which have appeared so far, which to one who reads the story can be identified as living individuals of Borego. Mr. Oliver is well known for his keen sense of humor."
Harry moved to Thousand Palms, California (just north of Palm Springs) on December 26, 1941 just three weeks after Pearl Harbor Day. He arrived in Thousand Palms with $5 cash, a bottle of cheap whiskey. and a shiny Ford station wagon, which was only 13 years old. To make ends meet and establish himself as a bonafide desert dweller, Harry went to work for the government helping to grow rubber. He passed the duration of World War II at Bell Ranch and working with the U.S. Army at Palm Springs Airport. Saving up $100, Harry bought a piece of land 8 miles due east of Palm Springs, between San Gorgonio Pass and Indio. Situated on Highway 99, Harry was ready to build Fort Oliver and become a legend in his lifetime. Starting with homemade adobe bricks, Harry constructed a building worthy of any western movie. "Actually," Harry likes to explain, "it's as old as the hills because that's where the dirt came from."
DESERT RAT YEARS II
By 1946, immediately after the war, Harry was ready to launch his Desert Rat Scrap Book, a publication that has sent shivers and laughs down the spines of newspaper editors across the country because of the spelling and punctuation. Harry made his own illustrations from woodblock cuts and designed his own alphabet using cactus to form the letters. But it was the stories and humor that he so lovingly injected into his Scrap Book that won his following. Harry said the Scrap Book was the only paper in America you could open in the wind because it was a single sheet of paper folded three times (to create five pages), and his claim held up. Harry produced 44 "quarterly" issues of his Desert Rat Scrap Book (or DRSB newspaper), often at irregular intervals, between 1946 and 1965, until his health and optimism failed.
In 1967 he sold his operation to ex-merchant seaman Bill Powers, who produced two more issues. Bill's son, Lincoln Powers, reprinted the first four issues, then had to abandon the DRSB because of lack of interest. While it lasted, the DRSB had a devoted worldwide audience.
Harry died on July 4th, 1973. On July 5th 1973, Old Fort Oliver's flag flew at half-mast. The 85 year old died in Woodland Hills, California, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital of a heart condition. He always said he wanted to die on the 4th of July and he did. His ashes were scattered at Squaw Hill, now part of the Coachella Valley Preserve. Efforts to save Old Fort Oliver failed; today the property hosts a gas station/mini-mart.